Monthly Archives: March 2013

Half The Sky

half the sky cover

“This book will change your life.”  One of my former high school students posted that endorsement on Facebook after reading Half the Sky by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. When a friend said, “You will love this book MaryLou,” I had no choice but to buy it. And they were right. Half the Sky is an enthralling read and makes you realize that by empowering women we may be able to change our world. 

Naxi singers Yunnan province China

The title of the book comes from a statement Mao Zedong once made, “Women hold up half the sky.”  Mao’s reign in China resulted in many disastrous consequences for it’s citizens but one thing he did recognize was the importance of women making a major contribution to the nation on all fronts. So he set out to liberate women from foot binding, arranged marriage and the concubine system and he allowed them into the work place. Many argue it was this liberation of women that led to China’s phenomenal economic success.

Woman selling clothing in Bali

In fact that’s the theme of Kristof and WuDunn’s book. When you educate women and allow them to become active participants in the economy of a country you immediately raise the standard of living in that country and improve its financial health. You also improve its chances for peace and see a decline in all types of violence.

Those aren’t just inspiring ideas; they are realities that are backed up in the book Half the Sky with dozens and dozens of personal stories and extensive footnotes citing the meticulous research the authors have done.

Jamaican farmer named Violet

Kristoff and WuDunn are married and have three children. Separately, together, and as a family, they have traveled the world to see first hand how women are treated inhumanely in so many places but also to see how women with courage, idealism and determination are changing things for the better.

Half the Sky is not an easy book to read. It is chilling to learn about women who are the victims of honor killings, female genital mutilation, rape as an act of war, child prostitution and legal physical punishment by their husbands.

With my professional golf caddy in Bali

It is also rewarding to read about how starting a business, getting a good job, having an education, or receiving support and affirmation from other women can change women’s lives and the lives of their families.

The book points out the ineffectiveness of some international aid organizations. Their workers drive around in SUVs and live in fancy houses. They administer funds that do little to change women’s lives, but when local women are consulted and empowered to be leaders for change themselves great things can happen.

Some solutions WuDunn and Kristoff offer are unorthodox but have proven effective. They endorse a global drive to iodize salt because research shows female fetuses are particularly prone to impaired brain development if their mothers’ bodies lack iodine. Introducing television into rural communities has helped women see they don’t need to be subservient to men, that they can be successful and expect to be treated with respect.

School girls in Phnom Penh Cambodia

Simple things like buying school uniforms, de-worming girls, paying for school lunches and providing supplies for young women when they menstruate, have proven to dramatically improve school attendance for girls in developing countries. Helping a woman start a small business can often revolutionize her life.

Woman in Jaipur

Half the Sky’s greatest strength may be the fact that it offers suggestions for immediate actions those of us who have been blessed with a more prosperous life can take to help women around the world.

Half the Sky has become a PBS television documentary and they have a website where you can learn more. 

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International Women’s Day



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Filed under Books, Education

Some Mennonites- Not All of Them

Saturday  in the Winnipeg Free Press John Stackhouse wrote an article about why Mennonites oppose our province’s proposed anti-bullying legislation Bill 18. I wish he’d said ‘some’ Mennonites because in fact many Mennonites support Bill 18. (For my international readers controversy about this bill stems in large part from its provisions to protect members of the LGBTQ community in schools from bullying.)

     The Carillon is the local paper in Steinbach, the Mennonite community at the center of the controversy over Bill 18. I’ve checked the letters to the editor there and in the Free Press over the last few weeks and quite a number of people with Mennonite surnames have written in support of the bill or the LGBQT community. I don’t know them all personally but I do know some attend Mennonite churches and at least one or two are Mennonite pastors. The chair of the local school board is a Mennonite pastor and he has made it clear the school division will implement the measures outlined in Bill 18.

     Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg has a Gay Straight Alliance on their campus and Canadian Mennonite University has a student- initiated group called Safe Haven that provides a place for supporters of the LGBQT community to engage in dialogue. I know of Mennonite churches that state on their websites they welcome LGBQT people to attend their worship services and participate in the life of their church.

      After doing some internet research I confirmed that both the representatives on Steinbach City Council who chose to vote against the council’s request to ask the Minister of Education to review Bill 18 are active members of Mennonite churches.

      The March 16th issue of the Winnipeg Free Press included an interview with a courageous young man from Steinbach with a Mennonite name, who stood outside the meeting place during the February information session on Bill 18, and handed out pamphlets in support of the bill. Another Steinbach young man who also has a Mennonite surname has had his story in all the major Canadian newspapers.  He wants to start a Gay Straight Alliance at the Steinbach high school. 

       I think John Stackhouse was making far too sweeping a statement when he talked about  ‘Mennonites opposing Bill 18’. Not all of them do.

      I’m usually proud to be a Mennonite. I list myself as one on my Facebook page. I write for Mennonite periodicals. I’m a member of a Mennonite church and volunteer for Mennonite organizations. I am proud of many things Mennonites have done, and are doing, but I’m not proud of the opposition to Bill 18 or the lack of support it suggests for the LGBQT community.

 If, as I believe, people don’t have a choice about their sexual orientation, it just seems right for followers of Jesus Christ to respond with acceptance especially when we know the rate of suicide is higher among LGBTQ youth. People who have a LGBQT lifestyle do nothing to harm anyone else, and members of the LGBQT community make valuable contributions to society that enrich all of our lives. 

    Some people of faith who object to the bill say they care about the LGBQT community but they don’t support the bill because it is unclear, poorly written and may impinge on people’s religious freedoms. Let’s be honest about this. If the bill didn’t mention anything about protecting those of varying sexual orientations no religious group would have given it a second thought or look.

      At one time the Christian church supported slavery and women not having civil or human rights. We claimed Biblical support for those viewpoints but eventually changed our minds. I think it is time to change our attitudes towards the LGBTQ community as well.  We need to let people know Mennonites have more than one opinion on this issue.

      Steinbach’s Southland Church perhaps unintentionally seems to have become the most publicized religious voice for the feelings of the community, yet a search of their website for the word Mennonite produces zero results. They can’t be the primary spokespersons for Mennonites.

      John Stackhouse probably needs to write another article in the Winnipeg Free Press about why Mennonites support Bill 18 and the LGBQT community because many Mennonites do. Their voices need to be heard as well. 

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Filed under Education, Politics, Religion


This morning Dave and I attended Hope Mennonite Church. We heard the children’s story The Quiltmaker’s Journey. The tale of a woman who makes a risky journey outside her safe, home community to share her gift of quilting with people who need it; fit in well with the sermon based on Philippians 2, which encouraged us to empty ourselves by pursuing our passions, caring for others even if it might seem risky, and obeying God by sharing our love. 

In the afternoon we went to see the play Halo written by Josh MacDonald. It was directed by a former colleague of ours Ray Cloutier and starred Alayna Fender, the daughter of our friends.  Alayna gave an excellent performance. She made us cry and laugh. The play is about families, faith and the nature of miracles. Set primarily in a Tim Hortons in Nova Scotia it had a little romance, a little comedy, a little music and some thought-provoking scenes.  

Dave is watching NCAA basketball and the Jets game tonight, while I work on writing projects. We are hoping for a Skype date with our grandson. Dave has made us mini-pizzas for supper. Looking forward to watching the Good Wife later tonight. Tomorrow I’ve got a workshop at the art gallery and in the evening I’ll attend the Dialogue series sponsored by the Manitoba Writers Guild with Dianne Warren and Joan Thomas. 

It’s been a nice Sunday. 

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Filed under Family, Religion, Retirement

The Age of Hope

Several months ago a magazine editor asked me to write a book review. I could choose Dora Dueck’s What You Get At Home or David Bergen’s The Age of Hope.  I hadn’t read either at the time and the editor knowing about my Steinbach roots, seemed surprised I opted for Dueck’s book since Bergen’s is partially set in my hometown.

 david bergen age of hopeI didn’t choose The Age of Hope, because while David Bergen is an excellent writer, crafting unique protagonists and memorable scenes with his well-chosen prose, I tend to prefer books where I can connect with the characters and in the past, I have rarely identified with the people who populate Bergen’s novels.  His stories make me sad and often make life seem hopeless.

 I have now read both books. Dueck’s collection of short stories was a delight. I enjoyed her strong female characters and evocative writing. But in contrast to the other David Bergen books I have read The Age of Hope drew me in completely. I came to really care about Hope Plett and I simply couldn’t put her story down. I’m trying to figure out why.

Maybe it is because I knew the woman on whom the main character is based. I went to school with her children and lived in Steinbach when she did. David Bergen says in a National Post interview that the heroine in The Age of Hope is based on his mother-in-law Doris Loewen. He does make it clear his character Hope Koop who lives in a fictional place called Eden, took on a life of her own and in some ways she became quite different from his mother-in-law. However, like Doris, Hope was born in 1930 and married a man who owned a car dealership in a rural community that he eventually lost in a financial crisis, thus precipitating a move to Winnipeg.

Perhaps the book engaged me so thoroughly because there were many things in it that reminded me of Steinbach, like Hope’s home on Reimer Avenue, the Holdeman Church where her parents’ funerals were held, and the fact she did her grocery shopping at Penner Foods.  I was always looking for recognizable people, places, situations and events in the story.

Another thing that intrigued me was how Hope wanted to be an independent woman, someone with a role and interests other than that of housewife and mother. She tries to learn Russian, enter law school and read great novels, anything to give her an identity of her own.  Hope made me appreciate how fortunate I was just a generation later to have the opportunity to not only be a wife and mother but have a full-time career and pursue personal interests, as well as serve on boards and committees in Steinbach. This was something few women of Hope’s generation were free to do in the community. 

I was also pleased that in the last part of the book Hope is afforded a measure of contentment. During her life she has struggled with mental illness, experienced poverty and her children have lives that are unconventional and often hard for her to understand.  She has been prevented from having a meaningful relationship with her grandchildren. Yet in the last years of her life, she finally has some joy. She gains the courage to come to the defense of a co-worker and a cousin in an abusive relationship.  She travels to France and revels in her freedom after her kind and faithful husband dies. She even has a brief romance.  The Age Of Hope did not leave me feeling hopeless.

 what you get at home dora dueck If you haven’t read The Age of Hope or What You Get At Home I can recommend them both. They have also both been nominated for Manitoba Book Awards 

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O Henry, Alfred Hitchcock and David Bergen

There is Winnipeg Mennonite Fiction

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Filed under Books, Canada, Winnipeg

Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations People Have More in Common Than You Think


Mennonites and Canada’s First Nations people have many things in common. I was surprised to hear that statement from Ovide Mercredi last Friday night at Thunder Bird House on Winnipeg’s Main Street.  If you want to know more about what the two groups have in common read the article on my Destination Winnipeg site. 

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Filed under Canada, Culture, History, Politics, Winnipeg


On Tuesday night I went to see a children’s opera with a sad connection to the Holocaust. Check it out on my Destination Winnipeg site. 

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Filed under History, Music, Winnipeg

Forty Part Motet

There is a thought provoking musical installation at the Winnipeg Art Gallery by musician/artist Janet Cardiff called Forty Part Motet. Read all about it on my Destination Winnipeg site. 

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Filed under Art, Culture, Music, Winnipeg